Fishermen’s associations in Vietnam and the Philippines on Monday protested China’s annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea and called for their national governments to oppose it, amid the threat of strict enforcement by the China Coast Guard.
“Vietnamese fishermen have complete rights to fish in waters under their sovereignty,” the Vietnam Fisheries’ Society said in a statement posted on its website, adding that the ban violates international law and their country's sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.
China, which claims virtually all the South China Sea despite competing claims from five other governments, announced Friday its annual moratorium on fishing within waters it claims jurisdiction over. That includes waters down to the 12th parallel of the South China Sea, encompassing the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
China usually only enforces the ban on its own fishing vessels, although fishermen from other countries are also meant to comply with it.
This year, however, the China Coast Guard (CCG) and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs have promised a “crackdown” on illegal activity during the three-and-a-half month ban that runs to Aug. 16.
State-run Xinhua News said that the law-enforcement campaign would “safeguard the rights and interests of marine fisheries and protect the marine ecological environment.”
That campaign, coupled with the aggressive behavior of China’s coastguard in recent months, has some fishermen associations in the region clamoring for a response from their respective governments.
“The Philippine government should not waste time and wait for Chinese maritime officers to arrest our fishermen,” Fernando Hicap, chairman of PAMALAKAYA, the National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines, said in a statement. “China’s bullying should immediately stop, and be protested. We have international and local fisheries laws that can be implemented to combat China’s aggression.”
"They have no right and moral ascendancy to declare a fishing ban in the guise of conserving fish stocks in marine waters that they have no legal claim, and they have massively destroyed through reclamation activities," Hicap said.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) spoke to a Vietnamese fisherman who said he and others would continue to operate near the Paracel Islands, but are concerned about the CCG and maritime militia harassing them. “If we are chased by Chinese ships, we would report to the [local Vietnamese maritime police], but normally the [maritime police] do not help at all.”
No fishermen have been arrested and brought to the Chinese mainland before, to his knowledge. He claimed there were about 10 fishing boats at the Paracel Islands on Monday, defying the fishing ban.
The Vietnam Fisheries’ Society said it had sent a document to the Vietnamese government and ruling Communist Party. It urged Vietnamese authorities to take “drastic measures” to oppose and attempt to halt China’s actions. The government-backed society called for increased sea patrols to protect local fishermen in Vietnam’s territorial waters.
Another Vietnamese source within the fishing community at Binh Chau, Quang Ngai province, told RFA that fishermen in the area typically contact the local Maritime Search and Rescue Center when Chinese ships cut their fishing nets or steal their catch. The center then compensates the fishermen for their losses.
Both of the Vietnamese fishing community sources requested anonymity to avoid any repercussions with authorities for speaking to news media.
China’s summer fishing ban is a recurring point of contention with other South China Sea claimants. When last year’s ban was announced, Vietnam issued an official protest. But the Philippines, whose President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer ties with Beijing, did not formally protest.
Hunter Stires, a fellow with the U.S. Naval War College’s John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research, said the purpose of the fishing ban was to create a “closed, unfree, and Sino-centric” order in the South China Sea.
“To make its draconian vision a reality, China is working to impose its will and its own domestic laws on other countries' fishermen and local Southeast Asian civilian mariners throughout the South China Sea,” he said.
The fishing ban covers an area that is “flagrantly beyond China’s lawful jurisdiction and deep within its neighbors’ exclusive economic zones,” Stires added.
China maintains that the summer fishing ban is meant to promote sustainable practices in its territorial waters.
But Stires noted that China is notorious for “paving over more than 3,200 acres of coral reefs” to create a series of militarized artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. He added that China’s massive fishing fleet has destroyed swaths of the seafloor in other countries' exclusive economic zones through bottom trawling, and has targeted the endangered giant clam by destroying reefs with boat propellers at Scarborough Shoal – a feature disputed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Jason Gutierrez of BenarNews in Manila and RFA’s Vietnamese Service contributed to this report. Radio Free Asia is a news service affiliated with BenarNews.